Getting past the Oilers has sent the Ducks to their second Western Conference final in three years, while a rock solid Predators club is looking to continue the best playoff run in franchise history.
THE DUCKS WIN IF…
After exorcising their Game 7 demons, the Ducks move on to the Western Conference final for the second time in three years with an opportunity to take advantage of a Predators team that has never before made it this deep into the playoffs. And if there’s anywhere that Anaheim holds a decided edge over their opponents, it’s in the experience category.
Heading into the playoffs, the Ducks’ roster had a collective 861 games of playoff experience, much of which stems from the fact the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler have each played more than 80 post-season games. As for the Predators, well, they have 618 total post-season games played and almost a quarter of that is tied up in captain Mike Fisher. With that in mind, it’d be shocking if nerves even slightly bothered the Ducks, especially given the dragon the organization slayed with the winner-takes-all victory over the Edmonton Oilers. Experience doesn’t necessarily win championships, but it can help ensure teams don’t wilt in big moments or on grand stages.
Getting past a team as defensively sound as the Predators, though, is going to take much, much more than an edge in experience. Offensive production is going to be hard to come by, which is why it’s the best possible time for Getzlaf, the Ducks’ captain, to be playing some of the best hockey of his career. Through 11 games, Getzlaf has already put up eight goals and 15 points, and it hasn’t seemed as though anyone has been able to slow him down. That dates all the way back to the regular season, though. Since the start of February, Getzlaf has put up 16 goals and 50 points in 40 games. He’s on a tear.
If there’s an area of concern, however, it’s in goal. The Predators’ offense has some firepower and John Gibson is going to have to be the last line of defense for the Ducks. He was full of holes against the Oilers, allowing 19 goals against in seven games and posting a .895 save percentage. His .908 SP for the post-season is the worst of any goaltender that advanced past the opening round, and he’s going to need to find his regular season form if Anaheim wants to get through to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 2006-07.
THE PREDATORS WIN IF …
It’s getting really difficult to find the shortcomings of this Predators’ squad through two rounds. First came the handling of the West-leading Blackhawks in four games and then a sound thumping of the surprising St. Louis Blues in the second round. Nashville won close games, blowouts, by shutout and in overtime. They’ve won games when their top scorers were going and games where it was the defense that was providing all the punch. And we know they’ve won some games thanks to Pekka Rinne.
Rinne has been out-of-his-mind good in the first two rounds of the post-season, to the point that he is literally on pace to set a record for the best save percentage by any netminder over the course of a playoff. Through two rounds, Rinne has been beaten 14 times — which is five fewer goals allowed than the Ducks’ John Gibson had in seven games against the Oilers — and has posted a mammoth .951 SP and unthinkable 1.37 goals-against average. Both are records for goaltenders who’ve played at least eight games in a post-season.
Of course, there’s a bit of chicken-and-the-egg thing going on in Nashville. Not to parrot what’s already been said by countless others throughout the post-season, but the Predators’ blueline is a sight to behold. Led by Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, supplemented by Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm and rounded out by Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin, the Nashville defense is GM David Poile’s masterwork. The top four is so strong that there hasn’t been a single offensive star — not Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Vladimir Tarasenko or Jaden Schwartz — that has been able to consistently break through. The Predators’ D-corps is going to cause problems, and lots of them, for the Ducks’ offense.
But what really could give Nashville the edge, more than anything, is if the trio of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson comes alive again this series. The line was held to just seven points in six second-round games after putting up a combined 15 points in four outings against the Blackhawks. If the Predators’ top line can crack a young but skilled Ducks’ defense, Nashville could take the series.
Ducks: This could be the kind of series where the bit players in Anaheim really shine, and who better to help the Ducks push the pace than veteran speedster Andrew Cogliano? Over the course of his time in Anaheim, Cogliano has slid into the bottom of the lineup as a role player, but he’s a darn good one and showed some offensive punch this past season with a 16-goal, 35-point season. That’s the fourth-highest scoring season of his career. After finding his touch in the second round with three points, including a goal in Game 7, his quickness could be one of the keys to forcing a strong Predators’ defense to turn and chase the play. A lot of the scoring onus could be on the rest of the Ducks’ depth, too.
Predators: With the way Forsberg, Johansen and Arvidsson played throughout the season and into the first round, they were viewed as the driving forces behind the offense, and with good reason. But James Neal showed in the second round why he’s still around in Nashville and the type of difference-maker he can be. In the second round, Neal potted three goals, one of which was a game-winner, and he’s got a history of showing up against the Ducks. Just last season, he put up two goals and three points against Anaheim in a seven-game series victory, logging the most minutes and putting more rubber on net than any other Predators forward. Add in Neal’s proclivity for throwing his weight around and he could wreak some havoc on the Ducks.
Two of the game’s best playmaking centres face-off in the Western Conference final and they’ll be the focal point for both teams’ attack. It’s the battle of the Ryans here as Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Johansen face-off in a rematch of last year’s first round match-up. That one went to the guys in yellow and we’ll see if they can repeat the magic from last spring. Johansen blossomed into an even better player since then and his line was a possession juggernaut, notching 17 more shot attempts per 60 minutes for the Preds compared to when he’s on the bench. Getzlaf isn’t as dominant there, but he’s a much more gifted point producer and this year was a huge return to form for him. He’s been even better in the playoffs with 15 points in 11 games. By total value, GAR is a big Getzlaf fan, though the two had similar average Game Scores. Head-to-head has gone to Johansen, but Getzlaf has been much more impressive territorially. If that continues, the Ducks may grab the edge this series which would be tough for the Predators to overcome because they need that top line to propel their offence. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
PREDATORS in seven games.
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